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Conflict Across Cultures

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Conflict Across Cultures

A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences

Intercultural Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Intercultural conflicts often seem intractable – but they don't have to be. This book explains why.

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  • Applicable


On April 29, 1992, a California jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force against Rodney King, an African-American motorist whom they had severely beaten after a high-speed car chase. The beating had been caught on camera and televised. The not-guilty verdict sparked four days of massive rioting by blacks in Los Angeles. To help quell the mayhem, King appealed for public order by asking, “Can we all get along?” Unfortunately, “getting along” is never easy, particularly when cultures come into conflict, as embodied by the white law enforcement officers and the black driver. Considering the number of such seemingly intractable conflicts around the world, many contend that they simply cannot be resolved. This book claims otherwise, at least for smaller-scale disagreements where members of different cultures can sit down with each other to iron things out. Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay explain the potential of “building relationships” as a solution to conflict. They focus on using knowledge and understanding to bridge cultural chasms, and report on international studies and case histories. They also explain the psychology of conflict and cultural assumptions. getAbstract applauds the authors for their insightful analysis and intelligent approach, and recommends this book to human resource managers and others who work with employees from a variety of cultural backgrounds.


  • Resolving intercultural conflict requires building relationships.
  • On some level, all conflicts are cultural.
  • Conflict becomes most pronounced when interdependent cultural groups vie with each other over limited resources.
  • Conflict shapes culture, and culture shapes conflict.
  • The dynamics of a conflict often evolve as events unfold.
  • Without openness and understanding, conflict will remain in place.
  • Stereotypical thinking always stands in the way of intercultural conflict resolution.
  • Social scientists have identified "cultural starting points" to use in understanding people from other cultures.
  • You can develop skills that will help you resolve intercultural conflict.
  • Achieving "cultural fluency," though difficult, is an important step toward resolving differences with those from other cultures, known as "cultural others."


Different Cultures are Like Different Musical Instruments

Consider a symphony orchestra. The instruments in the orchestra, from drums to trumpets to violins to tubas, could not be more diverse, nor the sounds they make more different. Yet beautiful music results when they play together. Of course, the conductor must use leadership to bring the individual symphony members together. The members of various cultures – who may be as different from one another as pianos and piccolos – can also use their differences to create harmony. They require intelligent leadership that identifies their common goals, such as the desire to end a dispute.

"Conflict and Culture"

To begin, define the nature of the issues that emerge when cultures conflict:

  • Conflict is a "difference...between two or more people that touches them in a significant way."
  • Culture is the "shared, often unspoken understandings in a group." Culture is "meaning-making" – that is, people's important priorities, the choices that bind them together with other members of their group.
“Learning to handle crosscultural conflict is emerging as a central problem in human relations.”

Cultural differences can take many forms. Ethnicity and nationality are obvious dividers. But so are cleavages "of generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, differing abilities, political and religious affiliation, language, gender."

Conflict between cultures generally arises because of three factors:

  1. Scarce or limited resources.
  2. Relationship factors that reflect rank or authority.
  3. Differing worldviews.
“Crosscultural collaboration is not for the faint of heart!”

Conflicts that occur along all of these fault lines at the same time are, by far, the most difficult to resolve.

Conflicts arise not only for different reasons, but also at different "levels":

  • "Material" – The immediate cause of the conflict.
  • "Symbolic" – The significance of the issues as the parties filter them through their individual sense of who they are, what matters to them and how they see the world.
  • "Relational" – The interactions among the parties.
“Relationship building as a central focus of...conflict resolution implies a significant investment of time in conflict resolution efforts.”

You generally identify the conflict on the material level, but you must resolve it at the symbolic level. Building relationships is an essential precondition for resolving conflicts.

The River of Culture

Culture is like an "underground river" – a "flow of meanings and identities." Like fish that are unconscious of the water in which they swim, people are often oblivious about their culture's particular unspoken laws, internal restrictions and instinctive signals until they leave it or encounter a challenge to it.

“Resilience and creativity are called for as we navigate the differences among us.”

Conflicts often arise because people from different cultures literally don't understand one another's words, even if they speak the same language. To resolve these conflicts, dig deeply enough to understand the participants' cultural proclivities. Unfortunately, the parties in a conflict often are unwilling to make this effort. Instead, most people fall back on stereotypes, a tactic that seldom works. Analyze the cultures you encounter by determining where they fall on these six scales:

  1. "High context – low context" – Nonverbal communication plays a large role in high-context cultures. A person's framework and actions play a larger part in broadcasting his or her meaning than actual words spoken. Communication is indirect. Conversely, low-context cultures are far more verbal and direct. Words have literal meanings.
  2. "Individualism – communitarianism" – Individualistic cultures emphasize personal achievement and fulfillment. Such cultures predominate in Western nations. Communitarian cultures are common in Africa, where people believe in the concept of ubuntu – that a person becomes human only in relationship to others. Individualistic cultures revere self-reliance and competition, while communitarian cultures esteem interdependence and group harmony.
  3. "Universalism – particularism" – Universalist cultures have standard rules that apply equally to everyone, while particularist cultures emphasize "uniqueness, innovation and creativity." The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which defines the basic rights common to all humans, is an example of universalist thinking. In contrast, particularist cultures sometimes argue that no rights are universal, and that you cannot apply the ethical standards of one culture to another. Thus, for example, they maintain that Westerners should not criticize African customs such as female genital cutting.
  4. "Specificity – diffuseness" – Many Western cultures value being exact and precise. In contrast, some other cultures adopt a more holistic approach. Specificity-oriented cultures prize efficiency, outcome and detail, while diffuseness-oriented ones believe process is as important as outcome and value working closely together within personal relationships.
  5. "Sequential time – synchronous time" – Sequential-time cultures work by the clock. Scheduling and punctuality are important, and everything is fast-paced. In synchronous-time cultures, time is flexible and expandable. Arriving late at a meeting is not rude, and honoring human interactions may be more important than getting through the agenda.
  6. "Low power distance – high power distance" – Low power distance cultures are democratic and value equal opportunity, while high power distance cultures are hierarchical, so people at the top receive special privileges. In low power distance cultures, your status depends on your achievements; in high power distance cultures, it depends on birth and class.

"Cultural Fluency"

To become fluent in dealing with diverse cultures, first become aware of your own cultural biases and assumptions as well as those of the people around you. Start by using the following four capacities:

  1. “Anticipatory capacity” – Develop an informed expectation regarding how you would respond to people with different cultural values. To enhance this capacity, observe how people from other cultures act. Keep your conclusions tentative. Constantly revise and update them.
  2. "Embeddedness" – Think about your intuitive awareness. Once you learn the habits of your culture, they become unconscious. To bring them back to consciousness, reflect on your cultural assumptions and how you got them. Think about other cultures' beliefs.
  3. "Expressiveness" – Once you've become aware of how your culture shapes your behavior and that of other people, learn to express your understanding. This is difficult because of the unconscious nature of so many cultural assumptions: They often seem inexpressible. Yet your efforts will encourage others to do the same.
  4. "Navigation" – This means connecting in a real way with cultural others. Build on areas of overlapping concerns and areas where you diverge to "co-create a future together." Suspend judgment when you interact with cultural others. Instead, use empathy to create a bridge of understanding between you.
“Intercultural conflict resolution works best when individuals or groups recognize their interdependence.”

Achieving cultural fluency demands a sustained commitment. It requires time, effort, mental energy and courage, because you may discover things about yourself that you dislike. Cultural understanding evolves from a conscious process to one that is subconscious and finally unconscious. When it's unconscious, you've achieved true cultural fluency. The process is like that of an immigrant born and raised in China who moves to the U.S. as an adult. At first, speaking English is very difficult. Eventually, however, the immigrant begins to dream in the new language. It has become so ingrained that it is now situated deep in the unconscious mind.

Flexibility, Creative Engagement and Momentum

Cultures conflict. Outsiders think of insiders as odd or different, and insiders return the compliment. Conflicts shape and reshape cultures. Wars, revolutions and colonialism create heroes, villains and new values. Even smaller forces that bring divergent people together can lead to disharmony, but you can learn to address it.

“There are too many examples of failed conflict resolution processes where it was believed that merely creating a new border...[or] signing a treaty...was enough to resolve problems.”

To resolve intercultural conflict, develop your "flexibility, creative engagement and momentum," each of which requires certain skills. Flexibility requires openness in the face of distinctly different parties. Its skills include:

  • "Interrupting patterns" – Whether you're thinking about familiar or unfamiliar things, the known or the unknown, you think in patterns. Even when you encounter something or someone new and different, the general habit is to try to fit it into a ready-made pattern. Resist this tendency when you are dealing with cultural others.
  • "Sitting with discomfort" – If you do not understand how cultural others think and what motivates them, you may become angry or disturbed about their actions. Of course, annoyance exacerbates conflict. Instead, learn to tolerate discomfort while you observe and reflect upon what's happening. This does not mean you should avoid conflict. It simply means that you need patience.
  • "Dancing with surprise" – People either hate surprises or they love them; either they cringe or they become energized. When you're dealing with cultural others, developing a love for surprises helps. Take advantage of the adrenaline rush to stay curious, flexible and friendly.
“[By] embracing diversity, we ultimately enrich ourselves, our families and our world.”

Creative engagement requires inventiveness. Its skills include:

  • "Metaphor" – All human beings think in metaphors. Using comparisons will help you communicate your experiences and perceptions to cultural others. Often, metaphors evoke sensations or emotions, in other words, empathy.
  • "Storytelling" – Humans also think in narratives. A story can stretch across a cultural gap more easily than yards of exposition.
  • "Ritual" – Rituals pack a strong emotional wallop. Inviting cultural others to participate in a ritual that matters to your cultural group creates bonds of common experience and emotion.
“At the heart of intercultural conflict resolution is relationship: a mutual discovery process through which we learn about others and ourselves.”

Momentum is about maintaining relationships. Its skills include:

  • "Revealing uncertainty" – Avoid defensiveness. Instead, open up and admit your flaws. Doing so encourages interdependence, which develops as all the parties reveal their common humanity.
  • "Pausing" – When it comes to resolving intercultural conflict, you are running a marathon, not a sprint. So, take time to rest. Often, this will help you develop a fresh perspective.
  • "Intuition" – Hunches and impulses can be very valuable as you work to resolve conflict. Often, they take you in new directions.

"It's the Relationship, Stupid!"

The only way to resolve intercultural conflicts is to build relationships with cultural others. Look for every possible connection. Remember, everyone is interdependent. A wise person once said, "The whole world needs the whole world."

About the Authors

Michelle LeBaron is a professor at the University of British Columbia, where she directs UBC's Program on Dispute Resolution. Venashri Pillay is a research professional in South Africa, where she studies conflict and resolution activities in Africa.

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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